Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘common license’

By Brenda S. Cox

“ . . . it was settled that they should be married as soon as the Writings could be completed. Mary was very eager for a Special Licence and Mr. Watts talked of Banns. A common Licence was at last agreed on.”—Jane Austen’s Juvenilia, “The Three Sisters”

In Jane Austen’s early story, “The Three Sisters,” Mary is marrying a man she hates, in order to marry before her sisters. She and Mr. Watts argue about everything, with Mary on the side of extravagance and her fiancé on the side of economy. She wants an expensive, exclusive special license (which he would not actually qualify for), while he wants banns, which are free. They agree on a compromise, a common license. What were these three options for getting married?

For most weddings, the parish clergyman announced the banns for three Sundays prior to the wedding. If no one objected, the wedding could take place.
Dr. Syntax Preaching, from The Tour of Doctor Syntax, 1812. Image Public Domain, from the British Library via Flickr Commons and Wikimedia Commons.

Banns

“The idea of Edward’s being a clergyman, and living in a small parsonage-house, diverted him beyond measure;—and when to that was added the fanciful imagery of Edward reading prayers in a white surplice, and publishing the banns of marriage between John Smith and Mary Brown, he could conceive nothing more ridiculous.” –Robert Ferrars thinking of his brother Edward as a clergyman in Sense and Sensibility

Most people got married with banns; the free option. The couple had to notify the parish clergyman a week in advance of the first announcement. They told him their full names, places of residence, and intention to marry. Then the parson announced the banns three Sundays in a row.

If the couple lived in different parishes, the banns had to be announced in both their parish churches (or chapels, if they attended a chapel-of-ease for a parish church).

Each Sunday, the minister would announce, for example, “I publish the banns of marriage between Charles Bingley of Meryton and Jane Bennet of Meryton. If any of you know cause or just impediment why these two persons should not be joined together in holy matrimony, ye are to declare it. This is the first (or second, or third) time of asking.” (I am assuming that the parish was named after its principal town, Meryton, as parishes often were, and that they lived in the same parish.)

If either of them was under twenty-one, a parent could stand up and say he did not agree to the marriage, and prevent the wedding. If anyone else knew of another objection, such as one of the people being already married, or the couple being too closely related to each other, they could also block the marriage.

Once the banns had been announced three times, with no objections, the parson could perform the marriage. It had to be in the parish church or chapel, between 8 AM and noon.

Everyone except for Quakers and Jews had to be married in the parish church, unless they had a special license. Roman Catholics had to be married by an Anglican clergyman (even with a special license), but could also have their own Catholic ceremony. All marriages had to be registered in the parish church’s registry, wherever they took place.

Those who did not want the publicity of banns, or who were in a hurry to get married (perhaps the bride was pregnant), or who simply wanted the prestige of paying for a license, had two other options.

Image of Mr and Mrs Elton taking tea
Mr and Mrs Elton, in the 2020 film version of Emma.
A clergyman like Mr. Elton could marry a couple by banns, common license, or special license.

Common Licenses

“Upon my word, it is really a pity that it should not take place directly, if we had but a proper licence, for here we are altogether, and nothing in the world could be more snug and pleasant.”—Julia Bertram in Mansfield Park, when they are in the Sotherton chapel, speaking of Mr. Rushworth’s wedding to Maria

Mary and Mr. Watts agree on a common license, which was also called a standard license or a bishop’s license. Julia Betram may also be thinking of a common license, though it would have to have been written specifically for the Sotherton chapel. (That chapel would not necessarily be a place where marriages could take place. If it isn’t, they would need a special license to marry there.)

A bishop or his representative could issue this license, which was much more popular than a special license. It cost two or three pounds. It was valid for three months, and the couple had to wait seven days before getting married. (In many parts of the country, it would take longer than that to go to London, get a special license, and return.)

The common license named the church or chapel for the marriage: normally the parish church of one of them, in a parish where he or she had lived for at least four weeks. They could marry any morning, in that church.

If the bride or groom was under 21, the groom or other witnesses had to swear that they had their parents’ consent and there was no bar to their marriage, or they might need a written statement of approval from the parents. (If they married without their parents’ consent and it was discovered later, the marriage was invalid.)

A rich couple, particularly from the nobility, might have one more option: a special license.

 

Elizabeth and Darcy, just married, from the 1995 BBC film version of Pride and Prejudice.
Did they get married by special license, as Mrs. Bennet hoped?

Special Licenses

“My dearest child,” she cried, “I can think of nothing else! Ten thousand a year, and very likely more! ‘Tis as good as a Lord! And a special licence. You must and shall be married by a special licence.” –Mrs. Bennet, Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth tells her she is marrying Darcy

Authors of Regency fiction love to have their characters marry by “special license.” The Archbishop of Canterbury, highest church official, could issue special licenses which allowed a couple to get married anywhere at any time. Application had to be made to the ecclesiastical court at Doctors Commons in London.

Such licenses were limited to members of the nobility and their children, baronets (like Sir Walter Elliot) and knights (like Sir William Lucas; these were titled people but not nobility), certain high government officials, and Members of Parliament. Others could get a license if they could convince the Archbishop that they really needed it because of their particular circumstances. Darcy doesn’t exactly fit in these categories, although he is the grandson of an earl so probably has good enough connections to get one if he wants it. He could certainly have paid the five pound fee. (It became five pounds around 1811.)

Special licenses were rare. In 1730, six were issued; in 1830, twenty-two were issued. In contrast, around 2,700 common licenses were issued per year.

Elopements

One more option, of course, was that an underage couple without their parents’ consent could run all the way north to Scotland. There, just across the border at Gretna Green (or anywhere, really), they could be married by anyone–a blacksmith did many such weddings. Scotland had few restrictions on marriage at that time. It wasn’t totally clear how legal such marriages were in England, but they were usually accepted.

 

Jane Austen makes no other mention of banns or licenses in her novels, so we’re free to imagine how each of her couples got married. Wickham and Lydia probably had a common license, to speed up their marriage. It’s possible, though, that Darcy requested a special license for them because of their circumstances, having lived together already. I imagine Emma and Mr. Knightley upholding English tradition and having banns called in both their parish churches. Although that might have been too much of a trial for Mr. Woodhouse’s nerves (and maybe he would even have objected!), so perhaps they got a common license. For the rest; what do you think?

Did Emma and Mr. Knightley marry with banns?
Scene from the film version of Emma, 1996.

Note: The British write licence for the noun, while Americans write license. I’ve used licence in the quotes and license elsewhere.

 

Sources, which also give more details

Nancy Mayer, Regency Researcher, personal correspondence and her excellent website 

Many thanks to Nancy for all her help!

Marriage Allegations, Bonds and Licences in England and Wales

Pride and Prejudice, Cambridge Edition of the Works of Jane Austen, edited by Pat Rogers, Cambridge University Press, 2006, notes 538-539.

Hardwicke Marriage Act of 1753, full text

Ecclesiastical Law by Richard Burn, LLD. London: Strahan, 1797. Sixth edition. Volume 3, pages 460-465. 

 

Brenda S. Cox writes on Faith, Science, Joy, and Jane Austen, and is working on a book to be called Fashionable Goodness: Faith in Jane Austen’s England. She will be speaking at the JASNA 2021 AGM on “Satirical Cartoons and Jane Austen’s Church of England.”

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: